In 1987, editor David G. Hartwell embarked on a massive undertaking.
Through conversations, panels, and a variety of correspondence, he came to realize the horror genre was at something of a turning point. A lot of horror writers and critics, when they cited their influences and favorite works, tended to favor short stories over longer forms of horror. In fact, a lot of the works that drove horror history appeared to be short stories. After much thought, he compiled what he felt was a definitive work on shorter horror at the crossroads of the genre; The way forward being paved by novels, the previous history built upon the foundation of short stories. It was meant as an all-encompassing paean to dark fiction, to discuss and outline Hartwell’s own thoughts and definitions of the genre.
The result was a huge tome titled The Dark Descent, as much a historical and critical work of horror as it was an attempt to codify and collect the best specimens of short horror stories. It’s award-winning, weighty in both content and size, and looms large in the collections of horror fans old and new.
That was thirty-six years ago. In the years since The Dark Descent landed with an almighty boom upon our bookshelves, horror has in fact changed quite a bit. It’s more inclusive, more wide-ranging. It’s undergoing a second period of heavy mainstream acceptance both online and off, and we’ve even started interrogating what were once unassailable idols of the past. In this rapidly changing landscape, it’s worth interrogating and dissecting a book as definitive and influential as this one. After all, publication is a relatively static thing and time is an incredibly fluid medium (just ask any time traveler). Some things will remain evergreen, some things haven’t aged nearly as well, and some things are still worthy of further discussion.
The only thing that’s certain is that a book this massive and influential deserves an equally massive undertaking—an in-depth dissection from start to finish where we discuss the stories, how they might have held up, what’s interesting about them, and yes, what both they and Hartwell get both right and wrong. Hopefully, it’ll be interesting and sometimes mildly irreverent—at the very least, I’m aiming for informative and worthy of discussion. So without further ado, let’s slam right into our first story.
“The Reach” by Stephen King
And we have our work cut out for us.
It’s a strong showing right out of the gate: “The Reach” is a classic of King’s work, a standout story in what some have argued is his strongest collection. It’s a strong start to have Stephen King at his best, and creates a definitive statement: One of the best modern storytellers and one who at the time worked exclusively in horror. A story that draws on past ghost stories and knocks it out of the park. Conceptually, it’s a strong showing. It also shows how much Hartwell knows his craft, beginning with a contemporary riff that sits comfortably alongside the past masters. Unfortunately, it also provides a strong object lesson for why the order of your stories matters in any collection, and marks the first of many strange choices Hartwell makes when categorizing horror.
So what’s this amazing story about? Well, it’s pretty straightforward. The year she turns ninety-five, Stella starts to see ghosts of her dead friends and loved ones, specifically her late husband Bill. They all tell her to join them in crossing the Reach, an ice bridge that forms over the ocean between her home of Goat Island and the mainland every winter. As Stella recounts life on Goat Island (where she’s lived her whole life), she resists crossing the Reach, until finally distressing news drives her to cross the ice bridge on one last perilous journey.
As stories go, it’s quintessentially King. Stella’s a wonderful protagonist, in that her narration (at least at the beginning) is lively. Her recollections and memories are juxtaposed with her life in the story’s present, where her family and friends are mostly passed and she spends her days reminiscing with the few remaining people her age and her son, Alden. King also uses his interrogation of nostalgia to great effect, showing Goat Island as a place Stella remembers fondly, but also one that’s insular and fading. It’s portrayed as a place people are stuck, though also a community that takes care of their own to some degree. It also inverts the conventional idea of a horror story. The supernatural elements themselves aren’t particularly sinister as much as they are gently but firmly trying to get Stella to make the right choice. All the horror is internal, driven by Stella’s own fear. It’s a story about accepting the things you can’t change, and as Stella finally sheds all the pain and issues of her years, there’s no sadness to it.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that “The Reach” is very clearly an ending. While it was first published as “Do The Dead Sing?,” the version collected in The Dark Descent is taken from King’s 1985 short story collection Skeleton Crew. Skeleton Crew is a very light sort of concept piece. The stories connect in small ways throughout the book (most notably a refrain repeating “do you love?”), a lot of them are riffs on older more classic gothic horror plots (“The Monkey,” “The Reaper’s Image,” etc.) and the first and last stories even mirror each other. The Mist, the novella that starts the collection, begins with a portrait of New England life as something strange comes in on a storm. “The Reach” ends with a storm and a strange event as someone leaves town, with a similar portrait of rural New England life.
You can even see some of the conceptual strings from Skeleton Crew in “The Reach,” like the refrain of “do you love” that echoes through the stories in the book. It works beautifully as an ending, tying up the various threads of Skeleton Crew— death, the supernatural, riffs on gothic horror— with a moment of peace and grace. King usually puts some thought into the order of stories when they’re collected. If something’s at the end, usually it’s supposed to be there.
The first story in a collection is something of a definitive statement on that collection. It’s the way, after the introduction, you introduce yourself and the ideas you’re about to explore. Breakable Things, for example, starts with Cassandra Khaw’s statement that “stories are mongrels,” setting up their exploration of myths and tales through a more modern sensibility. The Midnight Goatman Spookshow begins with “Huntin’ Them Hills,” setting up the insane mix of analog horror, occult conspiracy, rural high strangeness, and modern paranoia that Jonathan Raab continues for the rest of the stories. Even Skeleton Crew, the book Hartwell plucked “The Reach” from, begins with The Mist, a novella whose sinister chilly atmosphere and quiet-loud pacing echo throughout the rest of the book. Beginning with a story clearly meant as an ending for a larger work is just mildly confusing, classic ghost story or no.
Even in terms of Hartwell’s own approach to organization, “The Reach” doesn’t particularly make sense. Hartwell took care to organize his stories into three “streams,” according to his introduction, each with their own section of the book. In order:
- Moral allegorical horror, or horror where the prevailing theme is a moral lesson of some kind. The horror elements are usually meant to magnify the perceived evils of the world and act as a kind of shock to our emotional responses, waking us up to the horrors around us.
- Psychological metaphorical horror, or horror dealing with a central idea of aberrant psychology— stories where abnormal elements have a psychological effect on the surroundings, whether it’s pushing someone’s psychological boundaries past a certain point, or merely exploring the unnerving place where repression exists but isn’t wholly a force. It’s also where most “ambiguous” horror comes in, as it explores more of an internal landscape
- The Fantastic, the most effusive of the three streams of horror, where the commonplace absurdity of the text does its best to alter our perceptions and push us to view the world in a new light. A lot of “absurdist” horror, “surreal” horror and the like tend to belong to this third stream.
“The Reach” doesn’t belong to the first stream of horror. The conflict, as we saw earlier, is mainly internal, the supernatural warring with Stella’s own repression and fear of death and change. The conflict is resolved by her shedding that repression and finally following the ghosts on to the ice. This makes what Hartwell did— opening his definitive work on short horror stories with an inverse of a horror story that makes heavy use of internal conflict and is also clearly meant as an ending— frustrating to me. It creates a certain dissonance after an introduction where he talks at length about his definitions of horror and what horror represents to him to immediately contradict it.
That said, let’s not undercut Hartwell’s instincts here. “The Reach” is an excellent story, and Hartwell starting off his book with a story that ties together both his view of the past and his conception of the present (King was one of the authors that inspired Hartwell to curate this monster in the first place) is an excellent first move. It even outlines what Hartwell’s setting out to do with The Dark Descent— a challenging discussion on horror as a historical lineage with an unorthodox and controversial opening gambit. While the importance of order cannot be overstated, “The Reach” highlights Hartwell’s interest in exploring and examining conventions, and hopefully as we go further with the entries here, there will be even more interesting concepts to examine.
Next time, we’ll discuss a creep who lives in a department store (and the inspiration for a Twilight Zone episode) with John Colliers’ “Evening Primrose.”
Sam Reader is a literary critic and book reviewer currently haunting the northeast United States. Apart from here at Tor.com, their writing can be found archived at The Barnes and Noble Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Blog and Tor Nightfire, and live at Ginger Nuts of Horror, GamerJournalist, and their personal site, strangelibrary.com. In their spare time, they drink way too much coffee, hoard secondhand books, and try not to upset people too much.